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Book Review


Vanessa Ogle, The Global Transformation of Time: 1870–1950. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015. Pp. 288. $39.95 (cloth).


     In this well-executed exercise in world history, Vanessa Ogle ably traces the spread of standardized time in a variety of locations around the globe in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, a process which she refers to as "the emergence of modern times" (1). Chapters deal with the abolition of local times in favor of time zones and countrywide mean times in France, Germany, and India; discussions about daylight savings time in Britain; the spread of the Gregorian calendar to Russia and China; debates about efficient time management in Ottoman-ruled Beirut; and, the severing of time from solar, lunar, and agricultural rhythms across the Levant which had a significant impact on religious observance. The story concludes with a chapter on calendar reform under the auspices of the League of Nations and in post-independence India.

     There were many reasons why countries adopted uniform time. In Germany, Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke emphasized the need for uniform railway time for defense purposes, but nation-building was also a factor: Moltke pointed out that Germans in 1891 were observing five different times, which threatened the unity of the newly formed state. An awareness of globalization and the increasing movement of people and goods across national borders also played a role. For decades, the existence of multiple local solar times had affected only small numbers of people traveling long distances. But with the advent of the railroad, travelers faced the prospect of having to calculate and keep track of numerous different times. In the United States, Ogle points out, there were seventy-five different railways times in 1875, six in St. Louis alone. And it was not just politicians and businessmen who were driving the changes; scientists, too, played a role, especially at the 1884 Prime Meridian Conference, which proposed a global system of hour-wide time zones. Ogle makes the important point that the emergence of uniform and standardized time was not solely, or perhaps even largely, imposed from above, but rather that modern time emerged just as much from the margins and for non-governmental purposes.

     The Global Transformation of Time has many strengths, not least its attention to the intersections of the local, the national, and the global. The vectors of change, Ogle shows, whether described in terms of networks, flows, or connections, operated in multiple and complicated ways. Ogle notes the spread of ideas about time from Europe and North America to other parts of the world, but also the articulation of those ideas in different parts of the world without direct channels of communication. The book also touches on, although it gives less attention to, "social time," meaning the balance of work, leisure, and rest time. This is, however, largely a political-intellectual history; there is little about mentalités or the experience of time, such as described by Stephen Kern in The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1918.1 Nor does Ogle have much to say about Edward Said's and Linda Nochlin's claims that the West viewed the East as a place where time stood still.2

     For European historians, the general arc of Ogle's story will be familiar, although she adds great nuance to subjects such as the emergence of railway time. But where this book really shines is when it turns to regions outside of Europe, including Europe's colonies, many of which did not see the introduction of mean times until the 1920s and 1930s. In other words, the introduction of mean times was not part of the process by which colonial administrators tightened the grip of the colonial state over its native subjects under the guise of improving administration and communication. In fact, "seldom did the spread of mean times around the world originate in imperial centers bent on subjugating the imperial periphery" (76), although Ogle probably makes too much of the fact that the earliest efforts to introduce colonial mean times came from scientific organizations, rather than imperial governments or colonial ministries, or that later efforts came largely from missionaries and employers of indigenous laborers. She does show, though, how the introduction of times zones in places such as Britain's Malay States, along with French Indonesia and Sian, created "regional time, [that] integrated colonial possessions even across the borders of different imperial powers" (78).

     One of the most interesting chapters explores the early twentieth-century debate in the Eastern Mediterranean and other parts of the Muslim world over Islamic calendar times. Traditionally, daily prayer times were determined by the sun and moon's position in the sky, measuring, for example, shadow lengths, which vary with longitude and latitude. Largely for this reason, Muslim astronomers were well ahead of their European peers in charting the movement of the stars and planets the late sixteenth century. Ogle focuses on the dispute over whether the use of the telegraph to report the sighting of a new moon to determine the beginning and end of Ramadan was in accordance with Islamic law, in the process tracing how the spread of standardized time led Muslims to experience community in new ways.

     Several of the book's most important contributions are historiographical. Ogle challenges some of the claims E. P. Thompson made in his famous 1967 article on "Time, Work Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,"3 arguing that "abstract time"—divorced from natural timekeepers such as the sun and unwavering regardless of the season of the year—had not become hegemonic by the eighteenth century, but was instead "actively made and remade…in a drawn-out, arduous, and laborious process that took much longer to achieve than commonly assumed" (10). In fact, Ogle demonstrates that "around the globe, a multitude of articulations of time coexisted at the turn of the twentieth century" (48). She also bravely takes on Benedict Anderson, showing how the spread of uniform time through clocks, telegraphy, calendars, and almanacs produced imagined communities that were not just national but also transnational, such as the Muslim 'umma; Pan-Asianism and Pan-Africanism would be other examples.4 In doing so Ogle successfully engages the challenging analytical question of how to reconcile the simultaneous ascent of globalization and nationalism.

     This is, in sum, a complex, multi-faceted global history, though perhaps more accurately characterized as European history from a global vantage point. Built impressively on archival research conducted in eight countries and multiple languages, Ogle demonstrates that "[t]he global history of time reform is not one of resistance to Western temporal predominance, not even primarily one of hybridization," but rather of "perceptions and apprehensions of an interconnected world" (206). It is unlikely to see much classroom use outside of, perhaps, a graduate seminar in world history, but it is important and rewarding reading for anyone interested in the historical process of globalization.

Jeffrey Auerbach is Professor of History at California State University Northridge. He is the author of The Great Exhibition of 1851 (Yale University Press, 1999), and has just completed a book about boredom and the British Empire. He can be reached at



1 Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1918 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983).

2 See Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1978), and Linda Nochlin, "The Imaginary Orient," Art in America 71 (1983): 118131.

3 E. P. Thompson, "Time, Work Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism," Past & Present 38 (1967): 5697.

4 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London; Verso, 1983).




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